Mr. Speaker, there are days when what we do in this House is agreeable and other days when it is less so. Today, I believe we are having a positive and constructive debate on this legislative measure. Several years ago, I saw the Bloc Québécois member for Saint-Maurice—Champlain, Marcel Gagnon, take the offensive against a federal government that was very insensitive in dealing with this question of the guaranteed income supplement.
Let us remember that it was discovered that 272,000 people in Canada, including about 68,000 in Quebec, were not receiving the guaranteed income supplement, not because they were not eligible for it, or because they had been denied it, but because they had not been given the means to apply for it. This was the result of the somewhat obsessive war on the deficit.
The rules for employment insurance were tightened considerably, such as an increase in the number of weeks to qualify for benefits, a reduction in the number of benefit weeks to which people are entitled, and a reduction in the percentage of benefits, and this was done to take money out of the pockets of the worst off in order to pay down the federal deficit. The federal government also used the guaranteed income supplement for the same purpose.
This whole scandal was brought out into the light of day and Mr. Gagnon, along with all the Bloc members, set out on a tour of Quebec. We organized meetings in senior citizens clubs and with the Association québécoise de défense des retraités. We also held meetings with younger people who realized that their parents did not have access to this program because they did not have the information they needed. It was then that we realized just how terrible the situation had become. It took some time for the federal government to react.
In contrast, there are some issues on which the government acts much more quickly. When we owe money on our income tax, for example, the government reaches as far back as five years to recover the money that is due. However, when the federal government owes money to older people for the guaranteed income supplement, the maximum retroactivity is 11 months.
Once again today, in the debate on this bill, which will improve the situation on a number of counts, full retroactivity is still being denied, not to people who are 30, 35, 40 or 50 years old but to people who have contributed to our society throughout their whole lives, people who often are in very difficult personal situations.
Speaking about people who found themselves in this situation—and I recall meeting some—they were, for example, women who had never worked outside the home and whose husbands assumed responsibility for all financial matters, women whose husbands brought home the pay cheque and who were left with nothing when their husbands died. For many years, these women were not entitled to the guaranteed income supplement, although they would have been if we had only instituted an automatic assessment of their rights a few years ago. Often they have lived three, four, five or eight years in unacceptable poverty. If we had only taken the attitude that the guaranteed income supplement should be paid to anyone who needs it, if our policy had been based on that philosophy, we would not be here today discussing this bill. At least we can say now as parliamentarians that, even though it is many years late in coming because of the federal government’s slowness to institute changes, we are finally going to correct part of the problem. The automatic calculation feature will really help to correct the situation and ensure that people receive the guaranteed income supplement in due course.
What is the guaranteed income supplement for the people who are listening to us and do not know? There is an old age security program in Canada to provide an income to people who have reached 65 years of age. In addition, the guaranteed income supplement was developed for people who have no income other than this federal government income because we know very well that the basic amount is not enough for today’s cost of living. Even with the guaranteed income supplement, I can assure the House that people who receive the maximum are not wasting it. Fortunately, our seniors are accustomed to economizing and they manage ultimately to reach a satisfactory standard of living. There has been an improvement in the income of older people in comparison with 60 years ago. There has been an increase and that is very good because these people really deserve it.
However, a few corrections are in order. I would like to give you an example of something that does not appear in the bill. I realized that there was a problem, a fundamental flaw, in the indexing formula for old age security. It is calculated on the basis of a basket of goods and services purchased by the average Canadian consumer. Seniors have expenses that most people do not. They have to buy special equipment for their homes. For example, they may need an additional handrail in the bathtub.
There are other kinds of expenses, such as the cost of medication and alterations to the home. Many of these expenses far exceed the nominal inflation we see happening today. If old age security is indexed at 2%, that means people will systematically be losing money. Yet they adapt. It can be very frustrating to receive a cheque for $.55 or $1.05 more every three or six months while at the same time, the extra bills come in for medication, unexpected health issues or a death in the family. All such situations must be taken into account, and I would like the federal government to study this matter.
Instead of determining the inflation rate based on a conventional basket of goods and services, the government should use a special basket for seniors. This would ensure indexing that corresponds to the increase in their cost of living, not that of average Canadians. This bill aims to improve a number of things in this regard. It is pretty good, but it should go further. One good thing about the bill is that it mentions ongoing renewal, clarity of legislation and waiving the requirement for a renewal application for the guaranteed income supplement and allowance benefits once an initial application has been made.
In contrast to many government programs, people who may be 75, 78, 80 or 85 have to reapply each year. We will change that. It makes no sense that it has taken five years to reach this point, but the bill before us will at least take care of that. The bill also contains provisions to ensure that the legislation is clearer and more consistent and to reflect its true intent. This means that this was not done in the past. As my colleague said earlier, the true intent of the legislation is to provide income for people who have no other source of income and who absolutely need that money to live. The legislation is not intended to save the government money; it is not intended to pay people as little as possible; it is intended to give people what they are entitled to. We hope that the legislation will reflect this intent. There is also a need to simplify the reporting of income for couples and seniors.
For example, for seniors who apply for income-tested benefits and who have suffered a loss of income due to the termination or reduction of employment or pension income, this change would facilitate the application process by requiring that seniors report estimated pension and employment income only. This means that there will be a sort of safety net when unforeseen circumstances arise, so that we can make adjustments during the course of the year. Often, in practice, seniors are faced with a sudden expense. They withdraw money from an RRSP to pay it, and this amount is added to their income for the previous year, which reduces the amount they receive in the current year. We regularly see such cases in our riding offices, and we need to find ways to make the program more flexible, so that people are not penalized by such situations.
Spouses will no longer be required to provide marital and income information that has already been provided by their spouse or common-law partner. In practice, there will be one less obstacle. However, this transmittal of personal information must be carried out properly. With past practices, caution was required to ensure appropriate processing. What happened with the guaranteed income supplement also occurred with American pensions. As I was explaining earlier, it was during the same period where as much money as possible had to be collected and as little as possible was to be disbursed.
That was the 1994-95 period, under the former Liberal government. At that time, it was decided that an additional tax would be applied to American pensions. In the end, citizens in the same situation were penalized.
This situation has yet to be corrected. I hope that the federal government will examine this issue in the coming weeks and months so that justice may also be served for these individuals.
The Bloc Québécois believes that Bill C-36 will make it easier for disadvantaged seniors to access the guaranteed income program by providing for automatic renewal of guaranteed income benefits to couples on the basis of a single tax return. This is an interesting aspect of this bill. It is one of the reasons why the Bloc Québécois will support this bill.
The bill will allow seniors who have had a sudden drop in their employment income or their retirement income during a fiscal year to apply for the guaranteed income supplement based on an approximate statement of their employment and pension incomes. As I was saying earlier, this is another positive point. In a way it provides a credit or evaluation opportunity during a year when a senior's financial situation suddenly deteriorates. The situation can be adjusted immediately rather than waiting until the following year. What people buy with their old age security or guaranteed income supplement cheques is real. They are not stashing it away. This money is for covering daily expenses.
It can be shocking to go into homes or residences where seniors live in Quebec and Canada to see how people have to come up with small miracles to make ends meet with the money they receive. If there is a sudden change in their income or an unexpected expense in the family, for the couple or the person living alone, that is a major problem. The bill provides another positive aspect in that regard.
The bill also clarifies some sections of the Old Age Security Act in order to correct inconsistencies. This is also important. It also makes changes to the Canada pension plan. This does not affect Quebec or its constitutional responsibilities in any way. We are being vigilant and want to ensure that Quebec's jurisdictions are protected.
Generally speaking this is a bill that will improve the situation. However, there are a certain number of items we would like to go over in committee, unless the government comes back with another bill. The first item is the way this bill broadens the restrictions on immigrants who are new Canadian citizens. We will have to look at the impact of such a measure because the Bloc Québécois cannot agree to having different classes of Canadian citizens, regardless of their journey to get here.
In this case, we are talking about sponsored immigrants, that is those who were able to come here with the help of a sponsor. Under the bill before us, there could be situations where the income provided by the sponsor could be taken into account in the calculations with regard to the guaranteed income supplement while, technically, I think the person should simply be deemed entitled to the GIS. People who act as sponsors are not all millionaires.
Immigration here often means that a factory worker brings his father or his mother to this country. The person settles here and meets the eligibility requirements with regard to the number of years for example. At some point, if the money provided by the sponsor has to be taken into account in calculating the guaranteed income supplement, it penalizes the sponsor. In some way, the senior's personal situation is actually hurting his or her family's situation. I think this issue could be addressed in committee.
There is another aspect that was raised several times by my colleagues and that really needs to be addressed by the government. It is the last key element needed to make the system totally fair, and I am talking about retroactivity. Currently, retroactivity is limited to 11 months. Why 11 months for the guaranteed income supplement and five years for taxes owed to the government? This double standard is unacceptable.
The parliamentary secretary mentioned earlier that sound management of public funds will be a factor. That is the same argument that was used by the Liberals when they did not want to make changes to the GIS.
They argued that doing the automatic calculation every year would involve significant costs and that they did not know what they would amount to, and that we had to be careful.
As a result of pressure, the representations made by the political parties and the initiative of the Bloc Québécois, that argument was refuted with regard to automatic calculation. The question of retroactivity should now be dealt with in the same way. Let us be honest: the only reason why the government is refusing to do this is that it will have to pay out large amounts of money to make up for the negligence of the system.
An injustice or inequity must not be tolerated simply because a significant expense will be incurred. If there are errors that result directly from automatic calculation and a person is entitled to retroactive payment for a number of years, it would be entirely reasonable for retroactive payment to reflect a five-year period or the maximum period. If the right thing is done properly and at the right time, instead of being 11 months it may be 14 months, 18 months or two years. It may not be as drastic as that in all situations. There is a way of developing a system that is tight enough that the overall cost will not be too high at the end of the road.
What we have today is the result of the rather disastrous management of the past.
At present, in terms of retroactivity, there is certainly a larger amount owing. I think it is on the order of $3 billion for all of Canada. However, if the system is managed properly and we go ahead with a tight system, that amount will decline and it will be much lower in the years to come. This is therefore an important factor.
The Bloc Québécois will take the opportunity offered by debate on this bill to continue its battle and to tell seniors that they should be entitled to this retroactive payment. Yes, we are going to continue working to ensure that everyone who is entitled to the guaranteed income supplement is able to receive it.
This system was developed in Canada to enable these people to receive a certain amount of money, but it also helps to keep the economy going. We have to remember the time when neither the old age pension nor the guaranteed income supplement existed. People did not live nearly as long. Some people's lives involved much greater hardship than they do today. Part of that situation has been remedied. Now, we must continue to improve the system. That includes retroactivity and appropriate indexation for seniors.
We must examine more thoroughly the poverty issue of women living alone, for example, or when one of the spouses dies. When the husband dies and the wife remains alone, the surviving spouse must suddenly face major additional expenses.
Is the current survivor's benefits program adequate? Could an additional effort be made? We must examine these conditions as a whole. The bill we are debating today will not resolve all these issues. However, the committee must feel very comfortable about broadening these recommendations to make suggestions along these lines.
Concerning the expansion of the third party group to which the contributor's personal information could be provided, we must ensure that the testimony of the Privacy Commissioner is heard.
The Privacy Commissioner will have to examine the best way to ensure that personal information can be provided to various government stakeholders. Does this respect the protection of personal information? Does the individual give his or her authorization? To what does he or she give it? How will it be used? We will have to ensure that no action exceeds the limits.
The provision of personal information collected in the guaranteed income supplement reports and the direct link with the taxation agency must not be made to the detriment of the individual, and the latter must be informed of the type of exchange. We will then be able to guarantee that statistics will not be used improperly. The changes to regulations must not limit access to the guaranteed income supplement. The Bloc will keep a close watch on this.
Automatic assessment is very nice, but some sort of regulation before approval should not make qualification more complicated. We will follow this closely, because our seniors deserve that respect. There must be a spirit and a policy.
I will conclude by saying that this has been a long-fought battle. Marcel Gagnon, a former member of the Bloc Québécois, did extraordinary work on this issue. Today, he must be pleased that part of the result has been achieved, but he expects an equal measure of fairness on the retroactive side. Thank you.